Renowned for its contemporary take on tailoring, luxury shirting brand Palmer//Harding has gone from strength to strength since its launch in 2012.
Levi Palmer and Matthew Harding launched luxury shirt brand Palmer//Harding in 2012, after graduating with master’s degrees from Central Saint Martins. Inspired by a shirting project they both undertook while studying, they launched their brand with just £5,000 and a roll of cotton to their names. Now, they are stocked by the likes of Matches and Opening Ceremony, and recently collaborated on a collection of six shirts for John Lewis’s Modern Rarity collection. Drapers visited the duo at their Shoreditch studios to find out more about the journey from hard-up start-up to fashion week staple.
Matthew Harding and Levi Palmer
Can you tell us how Palmer//Harding came about?
Harding: We started Palmer//Harding just over five years ago, with the idea of focusing on shirts. With two people it takes a while to understand how to blend your aesthetics and get the price point and manufacturing right. We don’t regret any of our past collections, but some were definitely learning experiences. It feels like we hit our groove from resort 2016 onwards, and things have been going well since. We have found a formula and a good way of working together. It’s easier for people to come on board because we know who we are, and our team is starting to grow.
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How do your styles differ, and how do you combine them?
Harding: I’ve always been much more constructed. When I was at university I loved things like Nicolas Ghesquière, Balenciaga. I was pushing quite unwearable stuff when I was at uni.
Palmer: I grew up being a fan of Mugler and Gaultier and the power women of the 1980s. I always had a flare for the dramatic. But I used to be a goth as well and I’ve always had a bit more of a romantic, draped side. I like the unexpectedness that you find when designing through drape. Typically I drape, and Matthew sketches. Then we combine the two.
How would you describe the aesthetic of the brand?
Harding: There’s a calmness to it, even when we do a lot of stripes or similar.
Palmer: I think ease as well, casual ease, and key words like elegance and sophistication and chicness. Everything we design we try to make sure the person wearing it doesn’t have to think about how to wear it; they should just be able to put it on easily.
How does that come through in spring 17?
Harding: A lot is in the colour palette, which is very calming. The blues were a sepia blue, the reds we use were on an optic white, a bone colour. There are subtle elements of my past in this collection and we’re looking at Levi’s past in the next collection. For example, I used to wear two shirts at the same time. I liked the way they lay together and it felt really interesting. That’s where the layering of shirts came from in this collection.
Palmer: We had things like the “jedi” coat, because Matthew is a big Star Wars fan, and references to a book series called Puddle Lane that he read as a child. We also liked the concept of playing with wind – garments that capture the wind when you’re moving. So trousers and sleeves with open sides – lots of caped elements as well because they capture movement.
Harding: We used to be much more involved in concepts, and what would happen is we’d come up with a great idea and then find that it didn’t really fit with the concept. Now we have a “mood” and every great idea is valid, if it’s a good design we don’t have to leave it out. Shape-wise there’s less restriction.
Palmer: I think that works well with the consumer as well – there are so many miro-trends that there are not real trends anymore. There’s no real silhouette of the season, there’s not that zeitgeist. So trying to enforce that onto a consumer now, saying ’this is the shape you have to wear to be in fashion’, is outdated.
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Are you more consumer focused now?
Harding: Certainly, I think part of studying at Saint Matins is thinking “I’m an artist, everyone will love me”. Getting to know our customer more and knowing what she wants has limitations, but not many. For us it’s much more exciting to see people wearing our pieces. When we first introduced the “Super Shirt” we didn’t know how people would respond to it, if it was too dramatic or if people wouldn’t understand it – but now it is our bestselling piece. We call it the Super Shirt because you feel like a superhero when you’re wearing it. It balances a consumer focus with directional design.
How did the collaboration with John Lewis come about?
Palmer: We’d reached out to them quite a while before we did our collection, just to introduce our brand to them. We have a similar aesthetic and customer base. They had been designing the Modern Rarity collection for a while and they set up a meeting for the autumn/winter collection, where they showed us the Modern Rarity concept mood boards.
Harding: When we first met there were discussions over whether we would do a capsule or be part of Modern Rarity, but we went in a week or so later and they were pitching at us, which was very surreal. All the referencing was spot on with the kind of things we’d been looking at.
Palmer: Because Modern Rarity is such an elevated brand within John Lewis, they weren’t cutting back on quality or pricing. It was more affordable but it wasn’t so different to our own price points that our current customers wonder why they could get the same thing for £50 as for £350. It felt like an easy choice to make really.
How did you adapt your designs for the collection?
Harding: There are a couple of items that are re-issues of some of our old pieces, the rest were new. We knew we wanted to do something that was similar to our main collection but not so similar that it would annoy our regular customers.
Palmer: It’s a mixture of pure archival pieces, updates of items that we’re known for and then a couple of completely new styles.
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You don’t just design shirts - do you still think of yourselves as a shirting brand?
Harding: Definitely, that’s always going to be the core of what we do. It’s enjoyable to show the other side of us as well but we’ve always thought of other pieces as the supporting actors. They help to build a view of the brand but the star is always going to be the shirts and shirt dresses.
Palmer: If you think of Burberry, they’re a trench coat brand. Even on their runways, it’s styled around outerwear. We always start with the shirts and then build around it.
What’s next for the brand?
Harding: We’re working on a vacation collection right now, which is a small collection of shirts – “Palmer//Harding goes to the beach” essentially. Taking some of our classic shapes and adapting them with more beach-appropriate fabrications – and with details to make them easier for the traveller.
What advice would you give to young designers?
Harding: We started the business from my parents’ house, from my childhood bedroom. We only moved from there in March, so it took us a while, but they were a great support network.
Palmer: The message from that is to keep things lean. Only spend where you absolutely have to in the beginning and try and cut out the middle men. We produce our own fashion shows and Matthew does the sales outreach – so we don’t give away parts of our profits to sales agents or producers or anything like that. You have to understand what you can do and what you’re capable of. If you’re capable of doing it, then don’t just palm it off because you’d rather not do it.
Harding: As we grow and we can expand the team, there might come a time where we need to hire a production company for the shows or something like that, but because we know all the processes behind it, we can be much more savvy with it. You become an expert in different things, that’s rewarding in itself and will help your business to grow.